Today’s turbulent Hong Kong, through the eyes of Deng Xiaoping

In light of recent dramatic developments in the city, Tammy Tam looks at how the former Chinese leader would have viewed these troubling times

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2017, 5:23pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 February, 2017, 3:18am

If Deng Xiaoping were still alive, what advice would he have for Hong Kong in light of all the latest – often dramatic – developments?

Over the past week, we saw the city’s former leader, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, put behind bars for misconduct in public office. Then there was a massive rally, described as “the largest ever single gathering of police officers the world has ever seen”, in support of seven policemen jailed for two years for assaulting an Occupy protester in 2014.

In another twist, a contentious new round of political debate has been triggered by warnings over a possible “constitutional crisis” if Beijing refuses to appoint a chief executive who wins next month’s election but does not have the central government’s trust.

It was such a headline-grabbing week that the 20th anniversary of the death of China’s paramount leader passed quietly, without much notice. In his last months before he died on February 19, 1997, just ahead of the July 1 handover, Deng was known to look at Hong Kong on the map almost every day, according to his daughter. He was counting down to the day he would be able to set foot on Hong Kong soil when it was returned to China.

Donald Tsang’s loss is a victory for Hong Kong’s rule of law

Whether he ever imagined the momentous twists and turns that post-handover Hong Kong would take, we don’t know. But while he went to his final rest two decades ago, the city he yearned to see never seems at peace these days, rocked by one storm after another.

The past week of turmoil has raised two pressing issues: whether Hong Kong’s independent judiciary is getting politicised; and what role Beijing can and should play in the city’s affairs.

Hong Kong has long taken pride in its rule of law. But unfortunately, the reality today that the judiciary has to acknowledge is: one country, two systems doesn’t mean zero political pressure for the keepers of the law.

On the other hand, like it or not, Hongkongers have to realise that it’s also because of one country, two systems that Beijing sees itself as a key stakeholder in the chief executive race and therefore wants to have a say in it.

In fact, Deng himself once made it clear in the 1980s that Beijing “should not be totally hands-off” on Hong Kong after 1997, otherwise both the nation and the city’s interests could be in danger.

Then why did Deng allow Hong Kong to have this unique design?

If history is a mirror, a quick review of one episode is more than telling. During the Sino-British talks in the 1980s, Deng once angrily scolded two major negotiators from the Chinese side, Huang Hua and Geng Biao. They had suggested that the People’s Liberation Army would not necessarily be sent to Hong Kong after the handover, to which Deng retorted: “What Huang Hua and Geng Biao said was sheer nonsense ... There will be troops stationed in Hong Kong after 1997; this is a symbol of national sovereignty.”

Yet the situation soon changed in 1989 when the image of the PLA plunged to its worst for Hongkongers after the Tiananmen crackdown. The British were reportedly taking the opportunity to request Beijing not to send troops to Hong Kong. Insisting on its bottom line of a post-handover military presence, Beijing promised, as a compromise, that the future Hong Kong PLA garrison would be strictly confined to barracks.

Thus, over the past 20 years, except when visiting the PLA on days when the barracks are open to the public, Hongkongers have never seen a single uniformed soldier walking in the streets. Understandably, China’s bargaining power at the time was relatively weak. For Deng, to “give” or to “take” was a matter of different means to achieving the same goal.

The concept of one country, two systems itself can be seen as the art of “give and take”. For Hong Kong to make the most of this great design, politicising everything is not the way forward.